The polls are closed and the votes are in for India's 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but can the results be completely trusted? On Tuesday, the Times of India reported on an astonishing new study that indicates that search results from Google may have impacted the election.
The study, which was conducted in India in recent weeks, gathered more than 2,000 undecided voters from 26 of India's 28 states. Ranging in age from 18 to 70, these citizens were divided into 3 groups and asked to research each of the leading candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. What the groups did not know was that the search rankings in each of the three groups had been rigged to favor one candidate more than the others. So, one station favored Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, while another leaned heavily on Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Aadmi Party, and still one more featured Narendra Modi of Bharatiya Janata Party.
When all was said and done, researchers discovered that "elections could be swayed by about 12 to 15 percent in favor of the candidate that appeared higher and more often in search results." It didn't even matter if the article returns were positive or negative, just that they showed up prominently. Researchers believe that undecided voters could be swayed by search results. Apparently, voters just want to cast their ballot for someone they recognize.
According to researchers, this "Search Engine Manipulation Effect" or SEME was enough to change election results by margins as large as 2.9 percent. That might not seem like a lot, but when you consider that a quarter of worldwide elections are decided by a margin of about 3 percent, Google's potential influence on election results is astronomical.
The study's lead researcher, Dr Robert Epstein, says, "This is a very serious matter — a real threat to democracy … if Google, which has a monopoly on search in India, were to favour one candidate, it could easily put that candidate in office by manipulating search rankings, and no one could counter what they were doing. Even if without human intervention the company's search algorithm favoured one candidate, thousands of votes would still be driven to that candidate."
Epstein also added, "Of particular concern is the fact that 99 percent of the people in our study seemed to be unaware that the search rankings they saw were biased. That means Google has the power to manipulate elections without anyone suspecting they're doing so."
For their part, Google claims that they have no designs on entering world politics. Officials told the Washington Post, "Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google's approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine people's trust in our results and company if we were to change course."
Counting of the Lok Sabha election votes is scheduled to begin around 11 a.m. on May 16. Election officials have stated that they should know the outcome of the election by mid-afternoon on Friday.